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Red Light Cameras

white van runs a redlight
Van runs red light: Courtesy of Pembroke Pines Police Dept.
Have you ever experienced that spike of fear and adrenaline that accompanies the illegal action of running a red light? The thoughts race through your mind. Was anyone watching? Did a cop see me? Are red lights going to start flashing? Chances are your fear may be well founded. Whether or not you’ve been seen by human eyes, cameras may have caught you in the act. Red light cameras, as they are called, are catching motorist violating the laws and cities are issuing citations, sometimes without law enforcement overseeing the process. Proponents cite that they improve public safety and save lives. Opponents say they are a waste of taxpayers’ money and cause even more problems at intersections.

What defines the running of a red-light?
If a vehicle enters an intersection any time after the signal light has turned red, the driver has committed a violation. Motorists who are already in the intersection when the signal changes (waiting to turn left, for example) are not considered red light runners. In locations where a right turn on red is permitted, drivers who fail to come to a complete stop before turning may be considered red light runners. However, communities differ as to whether they issue tickets for it when it is caught on camera.


How do red-light cameras work?
Depending on the particular technology, a series of photographs and/or a video clip shows the red light violator prior to entering the intersection on a red signal, as well as the vehicle's progression through the intersection. Cameras record the date, time of day, time elapsed since the beginning of the red signal, vehicle speed and license plate. Tickets typically are mailed to owners of violating vehicles, based on a review of photographic evidence.

The National Motorist Association (NMA) opposes the cameras on certain fundamental criteria:

1) Ticket cameras do not improve safety.
Despite the claims of companies that sell ticket cameras and provide related services, there is no independent verification that photo enforcement devices improve highway safety, reduce overall accidents, or improve traffic flow. Believing the claims of companies that sell photo enforcement equipment or municipalities that use this equipment is like believing any commercial produced by a company trying to sell you its own product.

2) There is no certifiable witness to the alleged violation.
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it may also take a thousand words to explain what the picture really means. Even in those rare instances where a law enforcement officer is overseeing a ticket camera, it is highly unlikely that the officer would recall the supposed violation. For all practical purposes, there is no "accuser" for motorists to confront, which is a constitutional right. There is no one that can personally testify to the circumstances of the alleged violation, and just because a camera unit was operating properly when it was set up does not mean it was operating properly when the picture was taken of any given vehicle.

3) Ticket recipients are not adequately notified.
Most governments using ticket cameras send out tickets via first class mail. There is no guarantee that the accused motorists will even receive the ticket, let alone understand it and know how to respond. However, the government makes the assumption that the ticket was received. If motorists fail to pay, it is assumed that they did on purpose, and a warrant may be issued for their arrest.

4) The driver of the vehicle is not positively identified.
Typically, the photos taken by these cameras do not identify the driver of the offending vehicle. The owner of the vehicle is mailed the ticket, even if the owner was not driving the vehicle and may not know who was driving at the time. The owner of the vehicle is then forced to prove his or her innocence, often by identifying the actual diver who may be a family member, friend or employee.

5) Ticket recipients are not notified quickly.
People may not receive citations until days or sometimes weeks after the alleged violation. This makes it very difficult to defend oneself because it would be hard to remember the circumstances surrounding the supposed violation. There may have been a reason that someone would be speeding or in an intersection after the light turned red. Even if the photo was taken in error, it may be very hard to recall the day in question.

6) These devices discourage the synchronization of traffic lights.
When red light cameras are used to make money for local governments, these governments are unlikely to jeopardize this income source. This includes traffic-light synchronization, which is the elimination of unneeded lights and partial deactivation of other traffic lights during periods of low traffic. When properly done, traffic-light synchronization decreases congestion, pollution, and fuel consumption.

7) Cameras do not prevent intersection accidents.
Intersection accidents are just that, accidents. Motorists do not casually drive through red lights. More likely, they do not see a given traffic light because they are distracted, impaired, or unfamiliar with their surroundings. Even the most flagrant of red light violators will not drive blatantly into a crowded intersection, against the light. Putting cameras on poles and taking pictures will not stop these kinds of accidents.

8) There are better alternatives to cameras.
If intersection controls are properly engineered, installed, and operated, there will be very few red light violations. From the motorists' perspective, government funds should be used on improving intersections, not on ticket cameras. Even in instances where cameras were shown to decrease certain types of accidents, they increased other accidents. Simple intersection and signal improvements can have lasting positive effects, without negative consequences. Cities can choose to make intersections safer with sound traffic engineering or make money with ticket cameras. Unfortunately, many pick money over safety.

9) Ticket camera systems are designed to inconvenience motorists.
Under the guise of protecting motorist privacy, the court or private contractor that sends out tickets often refuses to send a copy of the photo to the accused vehicle owner. This is really because many of the photos do not clearly depict the driver or the driver is obviously not the vehicle owner. Typically, the vehicle owner is forced to travel to a courthouse or municipal building to even see the photograph, an obvious and deliberate inconvenience meant to discourage ticket challenges.

10) Taking dangerous drivers' pictures doesn't stop them.
Photo enforcement devices do not apprehend seriously impaired, reckless or otherwise dangerous drivers. A fugitive could fly through an intersection at 100 mph and not even get his picture taken, as long as the light was green!

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says red light cameras save lives:

What the Studies have shown is that red-light cameras reduce violations:
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has conducted studies that demonstrate intersections where cameras are present have seen reduced violations, compared with intersections where cameras are not present.  The decreases were particularly large for the most dangerous violations which occur 1½ seconds or longer after the light had turned red.

red lighr against blue sky

Studies have shown that the presence of cameras reduces red light running.
Red light runners cause hundreds of deaths and tens of thousands of injuries each year. In 2010, 673 people were killed and an estimated 122,000 were injured in crashes that involved red light running. About half of the deaths in red light running crashes are pedestrians, bicyclists and occupants in other vehicles who are hit by the red light runners. Enforcement is the key to getting people to comply with a law, but most communities don't have the resources to allow police to patrol intersections as often as needed to ticket all motorists who run red lights.

Red Light Cameras create more accidents.
Some studies have reported that while red light cameras reduce front-into-side collisions and overall injury crashes, they can increase rear-end crashes. However, such crashes tend to be much less severe than front-into-side crashes, so the net effect is positive.

A study sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration evaluated red light camera programs in seven cities. The study found that, overall, right-angle crashes decreased by 25 percent while rear-end collisions increased by 15 percent. Results showed a positive aggregate economic benefit of more than $18.5 million in the seven communities. The authors concluded that the economic costs from the increase in rear-end crashes were more than offset by the economic benefits from the decrease in right-angle crashes targeted by red light cameras. Not all studies have reported increases in rear-end crashes.

Timing of the Lights:
Providing adequate yellow time and a brief phase when all signals are red is important and can reduce crashes, but these things alone don't eliminate the need or potential benefits of red light cameras. Studies have shown that increasing yellow timing to values associated with guidelines published by the Institute of Transportation Engineers can significantly decrease the frequency of red light violations. In addition, a 2002 Institute study found that injury crashes at urban intersections fell 12 percent after the yellow and all-red traffic signal timing was modified according to ITE guidelines. 
A study conducted in Philadelphia evaluated effects on red light running of first lengthening yellow signal timing by about a second and then introducing red light cameras. While the longer yellow reduced red light violations by 36 percent, adding camera enforcement further cut red light running by another 96 percent.

It isn’t just about making money:
The objective of photo enforcement is to deter violators, not to catch them. Signs and publicity campaigns typically warn drivers that photo enforcement is in use. Revenue is generated from fines paid by drivers who continue to run red lights, but this is a fundamental component of all traffic enforcement programs. Ideally, ticket revenue should decline over time as the cameras succeed in deterring would-be red light runners. Independent audits of red light camera enforcement have shown that in some jurisdictions fines exceeded program costs, while in others, the programs didn't break even.

Are the cameras a violation of due process under the U.S. Constitution?
The constitutionality on the use of red light cameras has been challenged in various states and local communities. Most of the legal challenges are on a state by state or municipal basis. One of the challenges to the legality is the right to due-process. If a driver cannot be properly identified, his or her right to due process is negated and therefore it’s a violation of their constitutional rights.

After getting a ticket from a red-light camera while driving in Florida, a former New Jersey insurance attorney, Thomas Filippone, beat the charges on the grounds that the camera recordings could not identify him as the driver. It therefore violated his constitutional rights, and a Pasco County Judge Anne Wansboro agreed.

"Impermissibly shifts the burden of proof to the Defendant and therefore does not afford due process, and is unconstitutional to the extent due
process is not provided.”

According to the 45-year-old Filippone:

“If they are going to prove I was driving the car, it's their duty under the law to prove the identity of the driver. It unjustly shifts burden to me and
makes me shoulder the burden of having to prove their case."

In others cases similar arguments have been struck down. In Missouri a court has upheld the constitutionality of red light cameras. “Red-light enforcement cameras are constitutional and not a violation of due process, the Seventh Circuit, U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in January 2009.”
The court held that issuing citations to vehicle owners (or lessees) without any evidence of who was actually driving the vehicle at the time of the traffic violation is constitutionally permissible. "Is it rational to fine the owner rather than the driver? Certainly so," Chief Judge Easterbrook wrote in the Court's ruling. 

“A camera can show reliably which cars and trucks go through red lights but is less likely to how who was driving…That would make it easy for
owners to point the finger at friends or children and essentially impossible for the city to prove otherwise. A system of photographic evidence
reduces the costs of law enforcement and increases the proportion of all traffic offenses that are detected; these benefits can be achieved
only if the owner is held responsible.” 

The Court also found that imposing a fine on the owner of the vehicle rather than the driver not only "improves compliance with traffic laws" but has the additional benefit of encouraging owners to take greater care in lending their cars. “Owners will take more care when lending their cars and often they can pass the expense on to the real wrongdoer," the court’s opinion said. The Court also addressed the issue of revenues derived from photo traffic enforcement systems. 

That the City's system raises revenues does not condemn it. Taxes, whether on liquor or on running red lights, are valid municipal endeavors.
Like any other exaction, a fine does more than raise revenue: It also discourages the taxed activity. A system that simultaneously raises money
and improves compliance with traffic laws has much to recommend it and cannot be called unconstitutionally whimsical."

red light cameras on pole

The Ticket Clinic a Florida law firm has challenged the use of red light cameras on both evidentiary and constitutional issues. Ted Hollander a partner with the firm says the safety issue is a smoke screen. According to Hollander:

“They want to make money and they are disguising it as a safety program. The system is setup in this fashion where if you go thru a red light the first thing you get in the mail is called a notice of violation for $158.00. If you pay that quickly within the first thirty days it disappears, there’s no record of it at all, and so is that really about safety?”

He points out that scofflaws may violate the law with immunity, because the violations are not recorded on any permanent record. As long as they pay the fines on time the driver’s record remains unblemished.

say hypothetically you are a multi-millionaire, you can run these lights all day, so long as you pay the $158.00 nobody will ever know and when you go to court for your first speeding ticket a year from now, and you have just run 20 red lights. Nobody will know. If you walk into court with your first speeding ticket and the judge says hey Mr. Jones is a perfect driver, let’s give this guy a break because he’s a great driver. Now is that about safety.
 "I mean safety is not even in their consideration at all. If they are allowing people to pay $158.00 and  it disappears it’s basically saying you’ve got a green light, you can violate this rule all you want as long as you pay this $158.00 quickly and don’t make us come to court to fight it, just pay it quickly. It's coercion, it forcing people to pay quickly and it's giving privileges to those people with more money and it's just not right.”

In the city of Pembroke Pines, Florida there are 26 such cameras in operation and Mayor Frank Ortiz believes strongly in their ability to bring about safer intersection. The mayor say’s the camera’s save lives and don’t add additional costs to city.

“We have a contract with the companies; we want to be revenue neutral, so we are always striving to do that. The cost of cameras is negotiable
with the companies to make sure we remain that way.”

The battle over cameras legality and the effectiveness on safety is sure to continue. The argument however that red light cameras deter violators seems flawed.  The National Motorist Association (NMA) says; cameras do not prevent intersection accidents…Intersection accidents are just that, accidents. Motorists do not casually drive through red lights. More likely, they do not see a given traffic light because they are distracted, impaired, or unfamiliar with their surroundings. Even the most flagrant of red light violators will not drive blithely into a crowded intersection, against the light. Putting cameras on poles and taking pictures will not stop these kinds of accidents. 

cops in side mirror

Public Safety First:
Cameras can be instrumental in solving crimes as seen in the apprehension of the Boston Marathon Bombers, who were picked up on surveillance equipment. Possibly a combination of approaches would be most effective. A media campaign warning of the danger involved in running a red light. Hire more police and post them at the dangerous intersections. Just the simple act of following Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) guidelines for making intersections safer has proven to be effective in reducing violations if followed.

Nevertheless, public awareness and involvement is key to deciding how our governments behave. Ultimately, it is the voters that decide. Should governments be allowed to install these cameras and use revenues collected from them? In the end it is within our power to determine their use.

For a list of cities with red light cameras: U.S. cities with red light cameras